Terry Mergenthal

Waterhead

Panic attacks ran in their family, according to Finola. She’d had them regularly when she was a girl, and seemed proud of it. Her parents treated her with coffee enemas and whiskey shots and something called St. John’s Wort, never once thinking they might be the cause.

“That’s the kind of crazy shit I grew up with,” she told her daughters when they were too young to appreciate the meaning of crazy shit. “You two don’t know how lucky you are.”

Mae doesn’t feel lucky. She sits on her sister, Libby’s, bed and wonders if she’s having a panic attack now. She would like to ask if it makes your chest feel thick and soggy, like the clothes that sat in the tub of their broken washer that time, but Finola is in the ambulance with Libby, and Carl is following behind in the Sedona. Mae has been given strict orders not to use the phone or leave the house, except in an emergency. Another emergency, they mean.

Last summer, in the cereal aisle at Whole Foods, the panic attack was in her stomach, behind her belly button. It lasted ninety seconds, exactly how long it took Finola to run back from the meat department.

“A minute, damn it. I told you I would be a minute.”

After Mae caught her breath, she mentioned that if her mother had actually said a minute, she would remember. She remembered song lyrics after hearing them once and could recite the words to over thirty TV commercials. Sometimes, when her parents thought she wasn’t listening, she would surprise them by repeating entire conversations.

“I have an excellent memory,” Mae added, hoping this would count as an apology. They’d had to leave the groceries behind.

“Then, remind me to go shopping by myself next time,” her mother said.Panic attacks went away once you knew the reason, also according to Finola. Mae knows the reason for hers. A no-brainer, Libby would call it. Libby liked to say that word, though technically it was two words. Likes to say it. The thing is, Mae needs to promise—no, swear—never to touch anything that belongs to her sister again.

She rocks back and forth on the zebra quilt and thinks about the half-eaten chocolate bunny under the bed and the neon nail polish on the bureau and Jab, the stuffed porcupine she likes to pretend is real. She doesn’t want to think about the hardest thing, but she has to, because even after smoothing down the wrinkles on Libby’s bed and spitting out Libby’s gum, the pain is still inside her chest. The pain is the boy. It doesn’t matter that she saw him first; he’s made his choice. If Mae is serious about giving up all things Libby, she has to quit being in love with Spider McQueen.

She’ll begin by throwing out the journal that describes everything about him, from the condition of his Chuck Taylor All-Stars (torn left shoelace, stained toecap) to the hunch of his shoulders when he walks to the bus stop. So much time has gone into logging these details that Mae’s handwriting has evolved from the shouting caps of a ten-year-old to the loopy script of a teenager. Her mother once used the word blossomed, though she was talking about Libby who, by the time she turned twelve, had a perky behind and attention-getting breasts. Mae believes her handwriting, as well as some hidden seed inside, has also bloomed.

On Monday, she will request a seat change in homeroom, far from the one she now occupies behind Spider. She’ll miss breathing in his sweet mixture of French fries and cigarettes, but it will be a relief not to fight the temptation to put her hand on the spot where his back touches the chair. And if she gets Carl to drive her home from school, Spider can’t brush against her when they crowd onto the bus. Maybe he’ll get suspended again, and she won’t have to do anything. Maybe his father, a mean, excitable drunk, will make good on his threat to send Spider to live with relatives in Pittsburgh.

Mae takes the bottle of nail polish out of her jeans pocket and places it next to the friendship bracelets on Libby’s dresser. The thing is, she is already keeping her promise. Tomorrow, or maybe the day after, she’ll buy a new journal and fill it with the habits of salt-water turtles or the migration patterns of mosquitos. It will be spiral-bound and sturdy, with lined pages and a beige jacket. A color free of desire.

Libby comes home on a hot April afternoon, unaware of Mae’s promise. She is also unaware of the weeks that have passed and the grief trapped in the house like a moth and her own sad, vegetative state. Her hair is knotted and dull, and her mouth hangs open in a half-smile, as if she is about to tell one of her brutally unfunny jokes. There is a transparency to her, as if the doctors have replaced her skin with the clear plastic Finola uses to wrap Mae’s sandwiches. Used to use. Mae buys her lunches at school now.

“Can she hear us?” Mae asks the nurse, who is flicking her finger against a tube leading to the hole in Libby’s stomach.

Finola answers before the nurse has a chance. “Of course she can.”

Mae’s mother has changed since the accident. She now speaks in a pleasant drawl and clears her throat a lot. She eats sugar, lots of it, dipping a wet finger into the blue ceramic bowl next to the coffee pot. At night, she orbits impatiently through living room, dining room, kitchen, and back until, exhausted and weepy, she collapses on the sofa. She rarely washes her hair, just tames it into a messy bun and attaches a fake ponytail, which is not the color or texture of her real hair. It bounces cheerfully when she walks, at war with everything about her.

“Libby hears us just fine,” Finola adds, fingering a glass-beaded rosary. “Is it Hail Mary, Mother of God, or Holy Mary? Carl? Do you know?”

Mae’s stepfather squeezes Finola’s shoulder as if he’s about to deliver bad news. His rust-colored hair is leaking gray.

“Let me think about that,” he says, but even Mae understands this is not the type of question you think about. You either know it, or you don’t.

“Hail or Holy?” Finola asks again, sounding close to tears.

“We’ll ask Birdie. She’ll know.”

Birdie is Carl’s sister, the same sister Finola used to call the Hillbilly Bride of Jesus. Now, she phones her in the middle of the night to get adv